Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Paul's Resume (Philippians IV)

The basic elements of this chapter thus far are:

Imprisoned at Ephesus?
Ephesus at the End
Living Worthy of the Gospel

And now part IV:
Paul's Resume
In the middle of Paul's exhortations to rejoice in suffering and to have a servant attitude like Christ did, we suddenly find Paul warning the Philippians about "Judaizers," about those who would insist they need to get circumcised to be saved. The change in subject is so unexpected that some have even suggested Philippians 3 comes from some other letter Paul wrote to the Philippians. We probably do not have enough evidence to warrant such speculation, although it is of course possible. Nevertheless, assuming Paul has just recently written Galatians, as we think, then it makes sense that he would have these Judaizers in mind and would want to warn others in case they came to town.

So Paul suddenly changes subjects and warns the Philippians to "Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of those who mutilate the flesh!" Ironic, since a Jew might just as well refer to a non-Jew as an uncircumcised dog. Paul turns the tables and suggests that his enemies are the truly uncircumcised ones--their hearts are uncircumcised. In fact, they are not truly the "circumcision" (peritome) the ones God has set apart as His with this sign. They are the "mutilation" (katatome) who are bent on getting Gentile believers to convert fully to Judaism.

Some debate whether Paul is referring in these comments to non-believing or to Christian Jews. We think that, as in Galatians and as in 2 Corinthians 10-13, Paul is referring to other believers rather than to non-believing Jews in general. Since he has very recently written Galatians, he is very concerned that his ministry to Gentiles not be undermined elsewhere as well. He is concerned that his detractors might try to convince his churches to establish "a righteousness of my own that comes from the law" instead of a "righteousness from God based on faith" (Phil. 3:9).

But Paul also wants to make it clear that his Jewish credentials themselves are impeccable. He was circumcised the eighth day of his life like they were (3:5). Indeed, he speaks Aramaic as a first language and can read the Bible in the original Hebrew (3:5). Before he believed, he was a zealous Pharisee, like some of the strictest of all believers in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:5). As far as righteousness based on Law-keeping went, he was blameless (Phil. 3:6).

Paul thus was not like his opponents at Galatia, who did not even keep the Law themselves (Gal. 6:13). He had kept the Law as well as it could be kept. To see Peter and Barnabas feebly remove themselves from eating with Gentiles at Antioch must have been a joke. After all, he had really kept the Law. They had never kept the Law as well as he had a day in their lives (e.g., Gal. 2:14). Paul does not tell us here that he had been a miserable failure here or in Galatians. He just indicates it is not what God is looking for, and what God is looking for is so incredible, these sorts of things pale in comparison.

What God looks at is the faithful death of Jesus Christ on the cross, the faith of Jesus Christ. To participate in Christ's death through baptism (e.g., Rom. 6:3-4) and to share in his sufferings, is to look forward to a share in his resurrection as well (Phil. 3:10-11). All of Paul's past accomplishments and credentials as a faithful Jew are like rubbish when placed next to the excellence of what being in Christ offers.

Paul suggests that he is not yet guaranteed this resurrection of the dead (Phil. 3:11-12). He has not yet been perfected in this way, the perfection that will happen when the dead are raised. But he, as we, must continue throughout this life to pursue that goal and that prize, the prize of the heavenly call of the resurrection (3:14). We must continue to live a life worthy of the gospel (2:27), we must work out together our way to final salvation (2:12), knowing that God is inside and among us, working in us to bring His will and His good pleasure to pass (2:13). And if we are faithful by God's power, then one day God will "transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory" (3:21).

Philippians, like 1 Corinthians, is another one of the books of the Bible that seems to have such little distance between us and them. Here are two members of the congregation at odds with each other. Here is the ever present need for some in the church to stop thinking only of themselves and to begin to make others a priority. The hymn about Christ is one of the most majestic passages in the entire Bible, and its main point in Philippians is that we are to have the same servant attitude that Christ did.

These things are far more easily said than done. How many churches have you visited about which you could truly say that everyone was "of the same mind"? How many families are of this sort? How many denominational leaders? How many Christian colleges? Somehow we have a tendency to bicker far more over the details than to focus on our common mind and will.

Most of us in the West do not face the pressures we hear Paul mention in every one of his letters. Most of us do not really know the "sharing of his sufferings" (Phil. 3:10). And yet how few of us rejoice as Paul does in this letter? How many of us have learned to be content regardless of our circumstances? How many of us truly believe that we can do all all things through the strengthening of Christ?

We are also prone to misread Philippians 3:12-14 as being about our current imperfection and our need to forget our past failures and to keep pushing forward to get better. Certainly these are things we should do as well. But what Paul was forgetting was not his past moral failures but his past human accomplishments. And what he had not yet attained was not a blameless life--he feels quite comfortable telling the Philippians to follow his example (3:17) and expects them to be "pure and blameless" when Christ comes (1:10).

What he has not yet been guaranteed is the resurrection, the heavenly call, salvation. This is the goal and the prize, and it is for this end result that he urges the Philippians to live worthy lives and work together so that they all make it to the end. It may be faith alone that initially secures our right standing with God, but God has given us His holy Spirit thereafter actually to make us into the kind of people He planned for us to be in the first place. And it is only if we are faithful through that power that we will attain to the resurrection of the dead, according to Paul.

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